The earliest publication on growing terrestrial plants without soil was in 1627, the book called Sylva Sylvarum by Francis Bacon. Water culture became a popular research technique after that.
In 1699, John Woodward published his water culture experiments with spearmint. He found that plants in less-pure water sources grew better than plants in distilled water.
By 1842, a list of nine elements believed to be essential to plant growth had been compiled, and the discoveries of the German botanists Julius von Sachs and Wilhelm Knop, in the years 1859-65, resulted in a development of the technique of soilless cultivation.
In 1929, William Frederick Gericke of the University of California at Berkeley began publicly promoting that solution culture be used for agricultural crop production. Gericke created a sensation by growing tomato vines twenty-five feet high in his back yard in mineral nutrient solutions without soil. Gericke coined the term hydroponics in 1937 (he asserted that the term was suggested for the culture of plants in water (from Ancient Greek word “Hydro” meaning water and “Ponic” meaning work (or labour), literally translating to water work or water labour.
Reports of Gericke's work and his claims that hydroponics would revolutionize plant agriculture prompted a huge number of requests for further information. Gericke had been denied use of the University's greenhouses for his experiments due to the administration's skepticism, and when the University tried to compel him to release his preliminary nutrient recipes developed at home he requested greenhouse space and time to improve them using appropriate research facilities. While he was eventually provided greenhouse space, two other plant nutritionists at the University of California were asked to research Gericke's claims. The University assigned Dennis R. Hoagland and Daniel I. Arnon to re-develop Gericke's formula and show it held no benefit over soil grown plant yields, a view held by Hoagland. In 1940, he published the book, Complete Guide to Soil less Gardening, after leaving his academic position in a climate that was politically unfavourable.
Hoagland and Arnon wrote a classic 1938 agricultural bulletin, The Water Culture Method for Growing Plants Without Soil. Hoagland and Arnon claimed that hydroponic crop yields were no better than crop yields with good-quality soils. Crop yields were ultimately limited by factors other than mineral nutrients, especially light. This research, however, overlooked the fact that hydroponics has other advantages including the fact that the roots of the plant have constant access to oxygen and that the plants have access to as much or as little water as they need.
This is important as one of the most common errors when growing is over- and under- watering; and hydroponics prevents this from occurring as large amounts of water can be made available to the plant and any water not used, drained away, re-circulated, or actively aerated, eliminating anoxic conditions, which drown root systems in soil.
In soil, a grower needs to be very experienced to know exactly how much water to feed the plant. Too much and the plant will not be able to access oxygen; too little and the plant will lose the ability to transport nutrients, which are typically moved into the roots while in solution. These two researchers developed several formulas for mineral nutrient solutions, known as Hoagland solution. Modified Hoagland solutions are still used today.